Thursday, May 06, 2004

A Tale for Today?

Last night I also finished Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. I'm not sure what to think.

On the one hand it was quite a good read, but it wasn't exactly gripping. That may have had to do with the characters which were both weakly drawn and failed to make me care about them; only Doctor Manette seemed to have been fleshed out, while his daughter and her husband were blank canvasses as far as I could see. Even as important a character as Sydney Carton I felt I didn't know - indeed, after his appearance at the beginning of the book, he seems to disappear until the end. And Madame Defarge would have been more sinister if she had been built up prior to her meeting with the low-life Barsad in the middle of the novel.

But I also think it was slightly too melodramatic in places. I found the dialogue too overblown, too exaggerated; it jarred. And the numerous coincidences between the various characters was too excessive to be believable. I won't go into them, suffice to say that the the idea that the switch at the end could have happened without anyone noticing the difference seems unlikely to say the least.

However, now that I've read it I wish people who keep using the title of the novel would think twice before they say it. Usually they say it in the context of a wealthy and poor part of a city or region. But what Dickens was getting across wasn't the inequality but the result of that poverty: while the Newgate riot described in the first half of the book and set in London is eventually dissolved by force and lessening mob interest, in Paris it takes another turn, resulting in the storming of the Bastille, the Revolution and the subsequent Terror.

In other words, A Tale of Two Cities is not about rich and poor (although that does play a role), but about how two societies deal with it: in social upheaval and violence.

One lesson I do draw from my reading of the novel is the danger that violence begets violence. While the initial uprising stems from a sense of social injustice, it soon gains a momentum of its own and overwhelms everything in its path. By standing up to injustice, the perpetrators of the Revolution end up handling out the same type of rough justice as their predecessors, condemning the innocent among the guilty.

All this is ironic as our airwaves continually to stream out evidence that the American forces who entered Iraq last year, are now succumbing to the same kinds of abuses against prisoners that Saddam's regime would have been proud of.

I wonder what Dickens would have had to say about that if he were alive today.

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